Educated into Stupidity
The old phrase tells us to Keep It Simple, Stupid. Have we so lost touch with that basic truth that we are doing ourselves and our environment a disservice when it comes to gardening?
As a garden, environment and food educator it may seem odd that I am questioning education, but education on its own is pointless. Without knowledge of the practical application of what we know, we can often do more harm than good and in no other arena is that more obvious than in today’s garden.
When the Shit Hits the Fan
In my book, my blogs and my talks I encourage gardeners to put aside chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of more natural methods for improving the soil and protecting our crops. We know that much of the food industry uses toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides while growing the produce we consume, but they also use it in the hay fields that eventually feed the cattle that not only provide meat in our markets but also the manure that we purchase in garden centers to naturally amend our garden soil. More likely, the beef we buy at the store has been “corn fed” which is not good for the animal, the environment or you. That corn is almost always going to be genetically modified or GMO. Think about that the next time you buy a bag of cow manure that you think is natural or organic.
Instead of letting that knowledge stop you from using manure, why not be more proactive in the process? Contact a local horse or cattle farm and open a dialogue with them. Ask about getting manure from them but don’t let the conversation stop there. Ask about feed, antibiotics, and animal treatment.
I’m learning to choose my battles a bit more selectively these days. As soon as the weather dries out long enough I will start collecting horse manure from the farm where my horse Bravo lives with about a dozen of his closest equine friends. I know exactly what they eat and where that food comes from. I also know that some of the land on which the hay they eat was grown may have been sprayed with chemicals at some point. And that’s okay.
Coffee Doesn’t Have Any Ground to Stand On
We all heard that saying when we were growing up that you are what you eat so it makes sense that people who are trying to make more responsible food decisions for their families will want to avoid chemicals. That’s when our obsessive nature takes hold and we stop using shredded newspaper in our compost because it is printed with soy ink and soy is GMO. Or we won’t compost coffee grounds because we can’t afford the ridiculously expensive organic coffee beans, and who knows what they’re spraying at those coffee plantations anyway?
Education can be a slippery slope but we also need to temper that education with common sense. No, you might not know the origin of the coffee beans at your local coffee shop, but it has been proven that coffee grounds are an invaluable addition to composting efforts that pump up the nitrogen content beautifully.
The combination of just two ingredients – coffee grounds and newspaper – and time have been proven to create a compost that scores just as well as the compost that includes all of our kitchen scraps. Even if you are ethically against using the compost made from questionable grounds for your edible garden areas, why can’t you use that top-notch soil amendment for your flowers, trees and shrubs?
Before you declare your compost or soil chemical-free, I’d suggest a soil analysis. You might be surprised to learn that your dirt has some of the same bad stuff you’re railing against. Chose your battles and learn to adopt a more flexible mindset that weighs the pros and cons of every option objectively.
The Lesser of Two Evils
Look at it this way: Grabbing some grounds from the local coffee shop instantly transforms that bag from trash to a compost ingredient. If everyone grabbed some, millions of pounds of coffee grounds would be saved a trip to the landfill and would be helping to improve our dangerously depleted soil. Any chemical pesticide that may have been used on the plant that grew the coffee bean would have been decimated by the washing process, the roasting process, the grinding, and the brewing process. Further, compost with 25% coffee grounds will usually maintain a higher temperature for longer periods than other composts, so even more of the evil stuff will be removed.
So do we save coffee grounds and newspaper from the landfill, amend our soil for free, and make a positive impact on the environment in the process? Or is it better to leave well enough alone out of the fear that there will be chemicals in our compost?
My biggest fear is that all of the effort spent educating and encouraging people to learn to garden is going to backfire and result in a highly-educated society who is so smart they’ve gone stupid and lack the basic skills that just a few generations ago were considered common sense. In my own mind, it is pretty simple:
- Don’t use chemicals.
- Grow food.
The most crucial thing to remember is that we are not a society of absolutes. Even the USDA term “organic” is rarely 100% organic so despite our best efforts, unless we are growing everything on land that has been in our family for generations and on which only organic practices were ever used, we’re not entirely organic. And that’s okay.
It may not be ideal, it may not be perfect, but this isn’t a perfect world. And that’s okay.
Let’s not let our education push us into stupidity. Stop, smell the roses, and remember that gardening is by its very nature a flexible and adaptable thing. In nature there are precious few absolutes.
And whether we like it or not, that’s okay.